In a city where racism runs rampant, Crazy Rich Asians isn't inflammatory—it's necessary
You’d be forgiven for writing off Crazy Rich Asians, the first film from a major Hollywood studio since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian lead cast, as indulgent, superficial fluff. Two-thirds of the movie’s title references extravagant wealth, after all, and, if you’re unfamiliar with the bestselling book upon which the story is based, the trailer does little to squash perceptions that those of Chinese descent come from an excess of cold, hard cash.
Contrary to what its promotional materials may suggest, however, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about money. Rather, bubbling below the shiny, sumptuous surface is a story all too recognizable to Canadian- and American-bred people of colour: one of identity, belonging, and assimilation. And in Vancouver—a city where racial tensions run rampant, largely due to concerns surrounding an out-of-reach housing market—Crazy Rich Asians isn’t inflammatory. It’s necessary.
Vancouver has a long history of racism, with Chinese-Canadians, in particular, being subject to years of discrimination in the form of a head tax and being unable to vote, among other bigoted laws and policies. But anti-Asian sentiment has spiked in recent years, thanks to increased media attention given to foreign buyers and the degree to which they’ve influenced the region’s skyrocketing real-estate prices. In these discussions, all Asians—including those who were born and raised in Canada—are often grouped together, vilified, and regarded with disdain. We’re told to go back to our own countries, labelled “pathetic” and as “money-laundering thieves”, and painted as part of some malicious “Asian invasion” that’s conspiring to steal jobs and affordable homes from nice, hardworking white folks.
Of course, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. As a person of colour living in the Western world, you never quite belong. As an Asian-Canadian or Asian-American, you’re relegated to the margins in both real life and pop culture, typically fetishized or portrayed as some tired, problematic trope: the martial-arts master, the geeky hacker, the Chinese-food delivery person—if you’re lucky enough not to be whitewashed altogether, that is. And so you begin to internalize the hate that’s spewed your way, and you start to believe that your eyes are shaped strangely, that your food is unpalatable, that your culture is confusing. That there’s no place for you here, that you will never play the leading role onscreen, let alone in your own life.
And that’s precisely why Crazy Rich Asians is so important. By telling the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend, Nick Young’s (Henry Golding), sprawling and, yes, crazy rich clan, the movie presents a myriad of nuanced, three-dimensional characters that Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans can, for the first time in many of their lives, identify with. Yes, there are ridiculously wealthy Asians, but there are also witty Asians, badass Asians, shamelessly licentious Asians, scheming Asians, jaw-droppingly beautiful Asians, and resilient Asians who immigrated to the U.S. with nothing and worked overtime to provide and build a new life for their families.
What’s more, the extreme riches of the Singaporean elite are simply a backdrop for the rom-com’s main drama: Rachel’s struggle with her own identity as she grapples with the notion that—despite looking very much Chinese, being brought up by a Chinese woman, and speaking pretty decent Mandarin—she will never be Asian enough for Nick’s purebred Chinese-Singaporean family. It’s a painful catch-22 that leaves many Western-raised people of colour in no man’s land, and one that many Asian-Canadians can intimately relate to: trying with all your might to assimilate into North American society, only to realize that you’ll never be white enough to fit in; meanwhile, you’re not Asian enough to be accepted by those living in your supposed motherland, either.
Crazy Rich Asians validates this thorny, unique experience—projecting it in giant neon letters on the big screen—so that Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans don’t feel so weird and alone. Even as, or maybe especially when, white people hurl racial slurs at us from their cars, demand to know where we’re from—no, really from—and order us to return to the nations they assume are ours the moment they feel even slightly bothered or threatened by our presence. It’s ironic: by having its most domineering characters deem Rachel as unworthy, Crazy Rich Asians simultaneously declares to Asian-Canadian and Asian-American viewers that, yes, you are enough. That your stories deserve time on the silver screen, that they are worthy of being told. It’s no wonder, then, that I, and so many others, became misty-eyed—and, okay, maybe full-on sobbed—at the film’s showing. Representation is a damn powerful thing.
However, that’s not to say that Crazy Rich Asians is perfect. The movie parades the lavish lifestyles of the impossibly loaded with little restraint, not once stopping to examine the politics of inequality or the people—specifically, Singapore’s Malay and Indian populations—that have suffered as a result. There have been other criticisms, too, like the assertion that Crazy Rich Asians fails to convey the diversity of the Asian experience, instead zeroing in on the dynastic one percent. Though, like some have pointed out, it’s absurd that a film could reflect 40-plus diasporic communities and correct decades of Hollywood’s deep-rooted discrimination issues in one fell swoop. There are more stories to be told and more characters to flesh out, to be sure, but Crazy Rich Asians is a small step in the right direction.
And who knows? It may wake up the ignorant—those who deface bus-shelter ads with racist graffiti, for example, or those looking for an easy scapegoat in Vancouver’s heated real-estate debates—to the fact that Asians and Asian-Canadians aren’t one monolithic whole. We’re individuals with families, friends, relationships, and our own dreams, thoughts, flaws, and desires. And we’re worth understanding, too.